CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews


Notes for July

Flag of GermanyWell, it's summer, so here are a few non-arts thoughts from your moderator:

Ruth, David, Stephen, John Paul, and especially Anthony: thank you, thank you, thank you. A rare moment of sanity in the United States government.

The Tour de France without Lance, Jan, Ivan, Francesco, Alexandr, Tyler, Joseba, and many more? We will still be spending our n mornings watching at the Ionarts household.

On behalf of my colleague from Munich, "Die Mannschaft wird jetzt Weltmeister" (the words of German Bundespräsident Horst Köhler). Yours truly will be rooting for Les Bleus tomorrow, but bravo to Germany, advancing to the World Cup semifinals. If France beats Brazil, probably unlikely, it would be an all-western European semifinal.

Allez, France!If you want to have a real French experience, La Maison Française is hosting a big-screen viewing of the France-Brazil game today (July 1, 3 pm), with the French-language coverage on satellite. Allez, les Bleus!

Well, I didn't make it to La Maison Française to watch the game, but I wish I had. There must have been extended celebrations -- uncorking of the special vintages far down in the cellar, one imagines -- when France's single goal was enough to sustain Les Bleus over the inferior play of Brazil (1:0). So, it's an all-Europe semifinal, and for now things remain amicable at Ionarts. If Germany beats Italy and France beats Portugal, well, then, it's Lederhosen versus croissants.

Dip Your Ears, No. 64 (Fricsay’s Haydn)

available at Amazon
J.Haydn, Symphonies
Nos. 44, 95, 98
Ferenc Fricsay / RIAS SO Berlin
DG 474981

Perhaps the coupling of Haydn’s 44th, 95th, and 98th symphonies strikes you as slightly random – a little Sturm & Drang (no. 44, the Trauersymphonie - “Mourning-Symphony”), a little London (nos. 95, 98). Perhaps a 1954 mono recording doesn’t obviously kindle your interest or tickle your fancy? And maybe you have not thought much of the short-lived (1914-1963) Ferenc Fricsay – apart perhaps from enjoying a wonderful Beethoven or Dvořák 9th or his Don Giovanni. Well, here it is then, to point out that this budget disc from Deutsche Grammophon’s Europe-centric “Musik…… Sprache der Welt” collection is an absolute gem and that (at least for those who do not have a Haydn #44 in their collection) there is no reason not to indulge in this recording. The sound quality belies its age (better still than the remastered 58/60 Beecham EMI recordings), the playing of the RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin under Fricsay is positively infectious. And “mourning” as may be its title, it is actually an unadulterated joy to listen to; the kind of Angst- and tension-free music that allows you to smile, apprehending only skilled, honest beauty and goodness. It’s music with little wings. And a delighting 70 minutes of it.

Classical Month in Washington (July)

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Classical Month in Washington is a monthly feature that appears on the first of the month. If there are concerts you would like to see included on our schedule, send your suggestions by e-mail (ionarts at gmail dot com). Happy listening!

Saturday, July 1, 8 pm; Sunday, July 2, 3 pm
Ground (multimedia theater work using 17th-century ostinato bass pieces)
Ignoti Dei Opera
Baltimore Theater Project (Baltimore, Md.)
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, July 1)

Saturday, July 1, 7:30 pm
Dave Brubeck, The Gates of Justice
Cathedral Choral Society and Dave Brubeck Quartet
Washington National Cathedral
Review -- Joe Banno (Washington Post, July 3)

Sunday, July 2, 5 pm
Naji Hakim, Titular Organist of the Church of La Trinité, Paris [FREE]
Works by Bach, Franck, Hakim, and improvisation
Washington National Cathedral
Review -- Richard K. Fitzgerald (Ionarts, July 7)

Wednesday, July 5, 7 pm
Orion Trio (Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn) [FREE outdoor concert]
On the Lawn at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)

Wednesday, July 5 to Saturday, July 8, 11:15 am daily
Instant Opera! (Opera by "Mad Libs!" for children)
Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods
Wolf Trap

Thursday, July 6, 7 pm
Shadow Puppet Drama (Purbo Asmoro) from Java [FREE]
From epic of Mahabharata, battle of King Duryodana and Bima
Accompanied by gamelan orchestra
Freer Gallery of Art, Meyer Auditorium

Thursday, July 6, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Classical Hit Parade (Baroque)
Andrew Constantine, conductor
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
Review -- Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, July 8)

Thursday, July 6, 8:15 pm
NSO at Wolf Trap: Happy Birthday, Mozart!
Itzhak Perlman, violin and conductor
Filene Center at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
Review -- Mark J. Estren (Washington Post, July 8)

Friday, July 7, 1 pm
Kings, Queens, Warriors, Clowns: Know Your Javanese Shadow Puppets [FREE]
Wakidi Dwidjomartono and puppet master Purbo Asmoro, lecture-demonstration
Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Level 1)

Friday, July 7, 3 pm
Opera Institute Opera Scenes Performance [FREE]
Call (202) 448-3465 for information
Ward Recital Hall, Catholic University

Friday, July 7, 8 pm; Saturday, July 8, 8 pm
Rossini, The Barber of Seville [FREE]
Family opera, version adapted for children by the Lyric Opera of Chicago
Opera Theater of Northern Virginia
Amphitheatre at Lubber Run Park (Alexandria, Va.)

Friday, July 7, 8:30 pm
NSO at Wolf Trap: To Boldly Go...
Emil de Cou, conductor, with narrator Leonard Nimoy
Filene Center at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
Review -- Glenn Dixon (Washington Post, July 10)

Saturday, July 8, 8:15 pm
NSO at Wolf Trap: Ode to Beethoven
Emil de Cou, conductor, with mezzo-soprano Leslie Mutchler
Filene Center at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
Review -- Joan Reinthaler (Washington Post, July 10)

Sunday, July 9, 4 pm
Operatic Vocal Gala Concert
Opera International
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
Review -- Grace Jean (Washington Post, July 11)

Thursday, July 13, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Classical Hit Parade (Tchaikovsky)
Giancarlo Guerrero, conductor
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
Review -- Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, July 17)

Friday, July 14, 8 pm; Sunday, July 16, 2 pm; Friday, July 21, 8 pm; Sunday, July 23, 2 pm
Gioacchino Rossini, Le Comte Ory
Wolf Trap Opera Company
The Barns at Wolf Trap
Review -- Richard K. Fitzgerald (Washington Post, July 22)

Saturday, July 15, 12 noon and 3 pm
Opera Institute Italian Art Song Recitals [FREE]
Call (202) 448-3465 for reservations
Ward Recital Hall, Catholic University

Sunday, July 16, 2:30 pm; Wednesday, July 19, 7:30 pm; Sunday, July 23, 2:30 pm
Verdi, Il Trovatore
Summer Opera Theater Company
Hartke Theater (Catholic University)
Review -- Tim Page (Washington Post, July 18)

Sunday, July 16, 6 pm
Richard K. Fitzgerald, organ [FREE]
Music by Buxtehude, Bach, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Gigout
Summer Organ Recital Series
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Upper Church

Monday, July 17, 6 pm
Opera Institute Italian Art Song Recitals [FREE]
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

Tuesday, July 18
Ronald K. Brown / Phildanco (modern dance companies)
Filene Center at Wolf Trap
Review -- Oksana Khadarina (Ionarts, July 21)

Thursday, July 20, 5 to 8 pm
Artful Evening: The Harmonies of Schuller and Klee
Composer Gunther Schuller discusses his Seven Studies and Themes of Paul Klee (lecture begins at 6:30 pm)
Phillips Collection (free with price of admission to the museum)
Review -- Charles T. Downey (Ionarts, July 22)

Thursday, July 20, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Classical Hit Parade (Mozart)
Edwin Outwater, conductor
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
Review -- Stephen Brookes (Washington Post, July 22)

Thursday, July 20, 8:15 pm
NSO at Wolf Trap: Carmina and the Ring
Emil de Cou, conductor
Filene Center at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
Review -- Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, July 23)

Friday, July 21, 8:15 pm
NSO at Wolf Trap: Music of Richard Rodgers
Marvin Hamlisch, conductor
Filene Center at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)

Saturday, July 22, 8:15 pm
NSO at Wolf Trap: Roméo et Juliette in Concert
Stephen Lord, conductor
Members of Wolf Trap Opera Company
Filene Center at Wolf Trap (Vienna, Va.)
Review -- Richard K. Fitzgerald (Ionarts, July 25)

Thursday, July 27, 8 pm
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Classical Hit Parade (Beethoven's 9th symphony)
Edward Gardner, conductor
Music Center at Strathmore (North Bethesda, Md.)
Review -- Jens F. Laurson (Ionarts, July 29)

Saturday, July 29, 3 pm
Family Opera Day: Excerpts from Dream of the Pacific [FREE]
Smithsonian American Art Museum, McEvoy Auditorium
Preview -- Michael J. Toscano (Washington Post, August 4)


Minter, Tempesta Enliven Dual Finales

Both the Washington Early Music Festival and the National Gallery of Art's concert season came to a close Sunday, with a bold and distinctive presentation of secular and religious vocal and instrumental works from countertenor (and local-boy-made-good) Drew Minter and principals of the Philadelphia-based ensemble Tempesta di Mare (Gwyn Brooks, recorder; Richard Stone, Lute; and Rosamond Morley, viola da gamba).

The music on offer was all Venetian, ranging from the late Renaissance to early Baroque arias by Caccini and Cavalli, arias even casual modern listeners would discern as 'operatic' in nature. This is a rather broad and diverse repertoire, ranging thematically from love and regret to regret-and-love (and faith, of course). Thankfully the players were fully up to the task of bringing out the individual identity of each piece. Mr. Minter quickly launched into Marchetto Cara's Non è tempo d'aspettare ("there is no time to wait") with urgency and focus and remained 'on' for most of the performance, taking appropriate rest stops where the instrumentalists shone: notably Ms. Roberts in Bassano's Divisions on Ancor che col partire, and Mr. Stone (on theorbo post-intermission) in Kapsberger's Toccata prima, really a fantasia for plucked instrument demanding both virtuosity and poetry (which it got).

TheorboA few high points would have to include Mr. Minter, self-accompanied on small harp, troubador-style in Se mai per maravaglia (anon), a poetic yet simple reflection on the crucifixion, and as accompanied by theorbo in Caccini's Amarilli, mia bella, navigating the florid proto-Baroque lines with precision and floating notes in the higest register to excellent effect; and Mr. Stone and Ms. Morley in Diego Ortiz's Recercada segunda with a nice Spanish snap.

Throughout the program the most salient feature of Minter's work was the fine integration of the highest 'countertenor' notes with a solid tenor, even upper-baritone register: experience no doubt counts here, and Minter is a veteran performer by now. This paid dividends in the closing Cavalli arias from La Calisto ("Lucidissima face") and Il Giasone ("Delizie contente").

Those who feel early music should be 'played straight' might think Ms. Roberts and Mr. Minter a bit too bold in their presentations, but with music so distant in time a strong case can be made for risk-taking over academic restraint. The music came alive, undisturbed even by one overhead cloudburst that had all eyes focused on the skylight. The one disappointment, as usual, was the West Garden Court acoustics, which Minter and Roberts could overcome with their robust instruments, but which did not serve Mr. Stone or Ms. Morley very well.

The performance was linked to a new NGA exhibit, Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting, but is equally well linked to The Poetry of Light: Venetian Drawings from the National Gallery of Art. A word to the wise: both exhibits will be around for several months--but why wait and risk forgetting? One visit is unlikely to be enough, anyway.


Summer Opera 2006: "Lady Macbeth"

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, De Nederlandse Opera, directed by Martin Kusej, 2006Here at Ionarts, we love Mariss Jansons in recordings, and we love Mariss Jansons live. How great would it be to hear him conduct Dmitri Shostakovich's memorable opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at De Nederlandse Opera, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam? Well, readers, you have until July 2 to find out yourself, or you can read some reviews. The earliest review I saw was by Sébastien Foucart (Orgasmes et meurtres, June 4) for (my translation):

For this Amsterdam Lady Macbeth, the intention of Austrian director Martin Kusej, explained in the program notes, is quite clear: "Orgasm and murder are two diametrically opposed poles, two extremes between love and hate, two fundamental relationships between human beings. The climactic and profoundly mysterious essence is the pillar on which my production rests." This is reflected in his staging, constantly oscillating between the darkest tragedy there is and the most caricaturish and expressionist grotesquerie that can be imagined. Sex, desire, eros, are clearly in the background of the spectacle, which spares nothing of the violence, but never seeks to be grossly provocative. [...]

At the head of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the conducting of Mariss Jansons deserves only praise. Whether in the most tender and lyrical moments, in the most violent and implacable passages, or in the pages of delirious cacophony (the second act finale, wildly acclaimed by the audience!), Mariss Jansons, who was making with this production his first appearance with De Nederlandse Opera, leads an orchestra that is thrillingly precise, with a result in sound that can only be qualified, without exaggeration, as miraculous.
Writing for the Financial Times, Richard Fairman also reviewed the prima (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Amsterdam June 5):
Shostakovich’s panoramic tale of Soviet oppression might have been intended for the wide stage of the Muziektheater. The director, Martin Kusej, used the space well, filling it with blue-collar workers, vodka-swilling wedding guests and Gulag prisoners stripped to their underwear, riskily raising the cliché quota as he went along. There were some striking stage pictures but the production was so busy dealing in symbols of repression that the human element largely passed it by.

That was a shame, as it had a first-rate protagonist in Eva-Maria Westbroek, a Katerina of Jean Harlow- like allure, who had all the vocal power and stamina that the role demands. Christopher Ventris repeated his burly Sergey and bass Anatoly Kotscherga boomed impressively as Boris. Unlike the others, he also managed to keep his trousers on. Various excellent singers of the smaller roles – notably Carole Wilson’s game Aksinja – lost most or all of their clothes. If you are planning to appear in a Kusej production, make sure you are wearing clean knickers.
A couple of other reviews are of later performances, beginning with that of Jean-Louis Validire (Une éclatante réussite, June 13) in Le Figaro (my translation):
One can hardly imagine a more beautiful way to honor Shostakovich, the centenary of whose birth we are marking this year, than the one given by De Nederlandse Opera in presenting a Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk full of noise and fury. [...] Martin Kusej has created a sober and expressive staging. The torrid scene where the two lovers succomb to their passion is a model for the genre. Using strobe light effects, Kusej gives a harried rhythm to the scene while at the same avoiding the trap of pornographic vulgarity.

The triumph of this production is soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who shows in Katerina, one of the most beautiful roles of the 20th-century repertoire, the extent of her talents. Vocally, she is impeccable as much in the nuances of love as in the hysterie of passion. The casting -- in which English tenor Christopher Ventris stands out, singing the lover, Boris [he means Sergei], with beautiful clarity -- is very even and contributed to this stunning success.
Geoffrey Norris's review (Eloquent pace, illuminating detail, graphic sex, June 14) in The Telegraph combines the opera with a concert by the Concertgebouw that preceded it the previous evening:
The director Martin Kusej and designer Martin Zehetgruber create an atmosphere heavy with unease and foreboding. The provincial Izmaylov house is a gleaming glass construction of barren modernity, in which the bored Katerina, ogled by her husband's mill-workers, has only her dozens of pairs of shoes for company. The sense of claustrophobia is sustained right until the very end of the opera, where Katerina, now on her grim way to a prison camp and stripped of her Footballers' Wives-type finery, is incarcerated with other semi-naked, semi-sane convicts in a waterlogged, subterranean hell-hole. [...]

Shostakovich's recourse to popular music-hall idioms here and elsewhere in Lady Macbeth was the central theme of the previous evening's concert, in which his Second Suite for Dance Band and excerpts from his ballet The Bolt framed the First Piano Concerto. Marin Alsop breached one of the last bastions of male supremacy by being the first woman to conduct a Royal Concertgebouw programme, and she showed that, light though the music might be, it is also benefits from being taken seriously. In among the snook-cocking fun, there were many typical Alsop nuances and, in The Bolt, suggestions that the Shostakovich of the searching symphonies was not that far away. Simon Trpceski, soloist in the piano concerto, capped the concert with an exhilarating blend of rhythmic brilliance and expressive finesse.
Snook-cocking? I think all of us should try to use that word correctly in conversation tomorrow. How much are airfares to Amsterdam? More pictures here.

The Royal Ballet: Sleeping Beauty

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Royal Ballet Weaves Its Meticulous Spell (Washington Post, June 24)

John Rockwell, Reviving 'Beauty' With Old-School Poise and Reserve (New York Times, June 24)

Jean Battey-Lewis, Dusty Royal gems polished (Washington Times, June 24)

Philip Kennicott, 'Beauty' Reawakened (Washington Post, June 21)
During his 60-year career Marius Petipá choreographed more than 100 ballets. Only a few of them (La Bayadère, Don Quixote, Raymonda, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake) survived the test of time and formed a core of the current classical ballet repertoire. Created in 1890, Sleeping Beauty is Petipá’s crowning achievement and one of the greatest ballets of all times. Set to Tchaikovsky’s music, it is based on Charles Perrault’s fairytale La Belle au Bois Dormant, a story of a cursed princess who falls asleep after pricking her finger on a spindle and is kissed and awakened by a prince one hundred years later.

Sleeping Beauty is a showcase and an ultimate test for a ballet company. Beauty is not easily achieved: its grand staging comes with a big price tag; and its extremely challenging choreography requires the finest dancers. It’s an unattainable dream for many dance troupes and each (successful) new production is a cultural event in the ballet world.

The Royal Ballet has been on a quest for its own Beauty since 1939. The most recent attempts to resurrect the famous ballet ended unhappily, a 2003 production of Natalia Makarova was doomed as “too Kirov” and Anthony Dowell’s 1996 modern staging as plain “ugly.” Nevertheless, the company was determined to bring the magic back. This time the management decided to play it safe, choosing to revisit the popular 1946 version based on Oliver Messel’s stage decorations and Frederick Ashton’s additional choreography. Last week the Royal Ballet unveiled this new-old Beauty at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Photograph by John Ross /
(Photograph by John Ross /
After the roaring chords of the short overture subsided, the curtain rose on the Prologue, revealing the King Florestan’s Palace and members of the Royal Court preparing for the christening of newborn Princess Aurora. The stage decorations (arches, colonnades, staircases, and a mountain view painted on a blue backdrop) didn’t quite convey the regal splendor of a Royal Palace… more the two-dimensionality of a Windows Screen Saver. Ladies of the Court dressed in huge and elaborate dresses and topped with oversized wigs looked extravagant, not elegant. What surprised the most was the lack of vibrant colors in Peter Farmer’s newly created costumes. Pale blue and beige hues dominated the set. An excessive use of pastel colors gave the new staging a faded appearance. Cattalabute, the King’s master of ceremonies, clad in a dark green velvet suit with a hat reminding me of a nest with a white bird in it, looked like a character from another story altogether.

It is the curse of a second night’s performance that it is traditionally handed to a second-string cast. The Royal corps’s maidens in the beginning of the Prologue weren’t quite together, not an uncommon sight that night. Ballerinas’ heads and feet moving in different directions coupled with muddled sounds coming from the orchestra pit set a mood matching the gloomy sets right from the start. The cavalcade of good fairies with their cavaliers following brought a welcome change in the color scheme. Isabel McMeekan as the Lilac Fairy rescued the dancing part. She was a centerpiece of the party, dancing with grace, eloquence, and vigor. The arrival of the Wicked Fairy Carabosse in a dead-crow cart powered by six giant rats was rather more grotesque than ominous. Dressed in a long black sparkling dress, Genesia Rosato as Carabosse (the character role often performed by a male) was eccentric and bizarre.

Photograph by John Ross /
(Photograph by John Ross /
In the first act the audience finally got to meet the Princess. With a beaming smile, Roberta Marquez was the happiest Aurora I have ever seen. She was all charm and joy. Her performance was technically assured, but she danced in a way that was notably careful and self-conscious, as if her main goal was to execute each element by the book. Her balances in the famous Rose Adagio were steady-state. She gracefully moved from one suitor to another without a glimpse of hesitation, keeping a statuesque posture in each arabesque. (I only wished she paid more attention to her maybe-husbands.)

After the first act the performance finally took off. Imaginative designs and beautiful dancing in the Vision Scene of the second act brought some magic to the production. A charismatic dancer with an impressive virtuoso technique, Federico Bonelli gave a solid portrayal of Prince Florimund. He partnered Aurora with assurance and elegance. Young and exuberant, Marquez and Bonelli made a beautiful couple; their passionate duet in the enchanted forest was not only danced agreeably but acted very well, too.

The ballet culminates in the wedding of Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund. The festivities begin with a parade and divertissements of well-known fairytale characters. Little Red Riding Hood (Caroline Duprot) was particularly memorable not only for her enticing performance but also for the bright red cloak. Brian Maloney as the Blue Bird spent most of his solo in the air, demonstrating his ability to fly; Bethany Keating was a charming White Cat, flanked by Jonathan Howells as Puss-in-Boots. The glorious grand pas de deux of the lead dancers followed by the nuptial ceremony concluded the evening satisfyingly.

Whether this sort of Beauty appeals to you will depend on your expectations from the genre. The glory of the past can’t quite be recaptured – but good dancing will assuage those who expect classical ‘classical ballet’.


Summer Opera 2006: "After Life"

Margriet van Reisen and Claron McFadden, After Life, 2006, photo by Hans van den BogaardEarlier this month, Dutch composer Michel van der Aa (b. 1970) directed the premiere of his new opera, After Life, on a libretto adapted from the film of Hirokazu Kore-Eda, at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. Van der Aa also wrote and directed the video and sound pieces that are integrated into the live performance. Here is a brief summary of the plot from the DNO Web site:

Those who have died are required to choose a favorite memory to take with them into eternity as they arrive at an intermediary point; they may only proceed on their path to heaven once they have named their most defining moment. They are allowed one week in which to make their choice, during which time they are helped by others who have predeceased them but who themselves have not been able to make their choice and so therefore must remain at the intermediary point.
There were a few reviews, beginning with Andrew Clements (After Life, June 8) in The Guardian:
Like the movie, van der Aa's piece combines the imaginary with the real, intercutting the fictional operatic action with documentary video interviews in which a variety of people are asked to remember the defining moments in their lives. The opera's eight protagonists are in limbo, poised between life and death and confronting that same question, selecting the one memory from their past lives to take with them into eternity. Those that cannot choose remain caught between the two worlds until they make a decision, and it's the intertwined fates of two characters, one newly arrived, the other marooned there for 50 years but both involved with the same woman, that provides the main narrative thread.

But it's the meshing of that plot with the documentary elements that proves so teasingly effective, for as the 100-minute piece goes on, the boundary between the two blurs until the four interviewees are seen on video encountering the operatic characters, so that their touching stories seem to infuse the fantasy with something much more directly emotional. It's a strange effect, supported and sustained by van der Aa's ensemble writing, which is dominated by richly detailed string textures and enriched by electronic transformations, though the vocal writing (to an English text) is not always equally effective.
Van der Aa has a press roundup of his own at his Web site, excerpts all translated into English from Dutch and other languages. I wish I could find more about the score. Anyone?


Don Quixote and Music, Part 3

Available at Amazon:
available at Amazon
Don Quixote, new translation by Edith Grossman (released on October 21, 2003)

Don Quixote (online version, English translation)

Don Quijote (online version, Spanish original)

Ruta de Don Quijote (pilgrimage route following Don Quixote around Spain)

available at Amazon
Don Quijote de La Mancha: Romances y Músicas, Montserrat Figueras, Hespèrion XXI, La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Jordi Savall (released on January 10, 2006)
In honor of the 400th anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote and the release of an exceptional Cervantes recording by Jordi Savall, the Ionarts Book Club is reading the novel. Readers are invited to make comments based on their own reading.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

Most of the music that Savall selects to be played under the selections from Don Quixote is not directly related to the novel. It is mostly instrumental music that was popular at the turn of the 17th century. The third section (First Misfortunes) of the first disc begins with two readings, accompanied by an Alonso Mudarra pavana and another set of variations on Guardame las Vacas, this time by Antonio de Cabezón. Then, at the opening of the fifth chapter, Don Quixote is trying to recover from one of the many beatings he receives throughout the book. He retreats into one of his books, the story of Valdovinos. When his neighbor approaches to try to help him, Don Quixote takes him for a character in the book. Savall gives us Luys Milán's Romance de Valdovinos, which is not exactly the stanzas that Don Quixote quotes but is still a perfectly relevant selection.

When the neighbor tries to help him, he switches from the tale of Valdovinos to that of Abindarráez. Savall has reconstructed yet another old, anonymous romance, combining as he often does the melody and words of the ballad with one of the instrumental adaptations of the tune, in this case by Diego Pisador. Cervantes has Quixote refer to this story but does not actually quote it, meaning that is an example of how this CD not only functions as a "soundtrack," providing the music of the text, but actually adds to it.

In the fourth section (The Library Burns), we encounter one of my favorite sections of the book, Chapter 6, in which the curate and the barber, concerned and learned friends of Don Quixote, go through his collection of romances, deciding what to allow the maid to burn. As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, one of the books they encounter is La Galatea, by one Miguel de Cervantes, which they decide to preserve as the author has great promise. Again, we hear some more of the diferencias on Guardame las Vacas (Watch my cows), by Luys de Narváez, played again on vihuela. Representing some of the bibliographic treasures they find is the anonymous Ballad of Sir Bertram, from The Twelve Peers of France and Roncesvaux, set by Juan Vasquez. An anonymous setting of Adoramus te Domine for organ accompanies a prayer attributed to the Tirant lo Blanch, the subject of another romance in the library.

Rabel, illustration in the Cantigas de Santa MariaThe recording skips over several chapters, including the battle with the windmills, set quite memorably as the first adventure in Richard Strauss's tone poem Don Quixote. Strangely, the sections of the story that Strauss set to music are not for the most part ones where Cervantes mentioned music at all. After the two adventurers get the pulp beaten out of them -- the first of several chapters in which Don Quixote and Sancho serve as punching bags, making me wonder about how to compare this book with Voltaire's Candide, also another famous example of fiction as semi-autobiography -- they are taken in and treated kindly by some goatherds. The men wait for one of their young comrades to arrive, saying that he will play the rabel -- a bowed instrument, shown in an illustration from the Cantigas de Santa Maria -- and sing for the knight. During the reading of that section of the book, Savall improvises on that very instrument. The boy's song, a ballad for Olalla, matches selections from Cervantes' poem to a tune by Gabriel, in the rustic voice of Francesc Garrigosa with Savall accompanying on the rabel.

With this, we come to the question of just what is the role of music in Don Quixote. Most of the ballads and songs are older pieces, associated in some way with the chivalric ideal found in Renaissance courtly songs. The archaic nature of much of the music serves two functions, to draw attention to Don Quixote's insanity, clinging to something of previous centuries, but also the folk music background helps to set the rustic tone of the locale. However, although Cervantes makes fun of some of the old romances, especially the ones that Don Quixote's friends remove from his library, the musical pieces are treated more respectfully. The fictional heroes of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance -- Amadis de Gaul, Don Belianis of Greece, Orlando Furioso, the Knight of the Sun -- all write dedicatory poems to Don Quixote in the absurd introduction Cervantes dreamed up for the book. With tongue firmly in cheek, he even pens a supposed dialogue, in sonnet form, between Quixote's horse, Rocinante, and Babieca, the steed of El Cid. The rabel tune -- "The Ballad that Antonio Sang," as Cervantes labels it in Chapter 11 -- has none of that sarcasm, and actually hearing this performance makes that all the more evident.

Young Pittsburghers Sizzle In French Fare

Daniel MeyerThe Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra, one of a number of training orchestras for young players around the U.S. (this one dating back to 1946, current ages ranging from 13 to 22), played its second concert on the D.C. circuit last Friday at Strathmore Hall. The first, on Wednesday at the Rachel Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria, not heard by Ionarts, presented the same program of French favorites: the Franck Symphony, La Mer, and Saint-Saëns' second piano concerto. If a youth concert so chock full of standard, tired repertoire might have given rise to suspicious condescension, none was warranted here. These youngsters turned out fully professional, coherent interpretations of challening music.

Judging them by professional standards then seems fair, even if it warrants mentioning the 87-piece orchestra's raw and unlovely string tone in some of the more subtle and exposed passages of the Debussy, as well as a few horn bobbles. I have heard much worse, though, from vaunted professional ensembles I won't mention. What's more, the Pittsburghers en masse produced a fine, full, and focused sound, well-balanced among the orchestral sections, nicely displaying the detail of each score while maintaining admirable forward momentum.

Led by Pittsburgh Symphony Resident Conductor and Aspen Prize winner Daniel Meyer, the Youth Symphony delivered a broadly phrased, bold first movement in the Franck, a very senstive reading of the central Allegretto with fine English horn playing, and a robust final Allegro non troppo. The codas of both first and last movements were really fine, trumpets and trombones bright, clear and forceful without brutality, and a nice rallentando before the first-movement coda was a nice touch. In the Saint-Saëns, played by high school senior Jingnan Hou (also a member of the violin section!), the only disappointment was the omission of the last two movements (final exams intruding, perhaps?). Ms. Hou played with Lisztian fervor, and while there may be more poetry in the piece, Mr. Meyer's big band aproached sounded fine.

Perhaps most impressive was the Debussy, whose subtleties of rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics stump many a professional musician. Not so for Mr. Meyer's players, who (noted reservations aside) got thoroughly inside the music, with plenty of poetry and a thrilling surge of tone at the end of Dialogue du vent et de la mer.

An impressive concert, grossly underattended, with Mr. Meyer - a talent to watch - cleary deserving much of the credit. The small but enthusiastic (family-dominated) crowd was rewarded with a brisk and vital Sousa march that could give Elgar a run for his money.


Summer Opera 2006: Patrick Burgan's "Peter Pan"

Patrick Burgan, Peter Pan, Théâtre Zingaro, 2006, photo by M. N. RobertLast month, the Théâtre du Châtelet presented a new opera that it commissioned from Patrick Burgan (b. 1960), on the story of Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. It was one of the final actions of the theater's departing director, Jean-Pierre Brossmann. I read a review by Marie-Aude Roux ("Peter Pan" se déploie au Théâtre Zingaro, May 27) for Le Monde (my translation and links added):

Other directors would have ended with a heavyweight of the lyric repertory or on an egotistic, provocative note. Brossmann prefers something unheard of: the creation of a work of contemporary music, sung and acted principally by children, and presented outside the Châtelet's walls, at Bartabas's Théâtre Zingaro. Perhaps because the imaginary world of a director defending certain artistic principles is not one of the themes common to the lyric stage.

The imaginary kingdom of Patrick Burgan, centered on the feminine role of Wendy, develops "three simultaneous and interactive worlds." That of today, where Wendy as a grandmother recites the story of her adventures to her granddaughter Lucy (Marie-Christine Barrault is the sort of nutty and kind granny we love); the world of the past, where the young Wendy lives between her fighting parents and a dead younger brother; and the surreal world of Peter Pan, by far the most present on the stage.

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Marc Forster, Finding Neverland, Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet (released on March 22, 2005)
Conceived as a helix, the set -- the city of London in trompe-l'œil - unrolls around the island, shown at the center of things as on an old map. From the corridors of the imagination, where normally the horses charge forth at a gallop, fairies and sirens rise up, Indians, pirates, and wild beasts. The sets and staging of Isabelle Partiot-Pieri are somber and very simple, effective at evoking the fantastic, like the large illuminated blinking alarm clock that signals the presence of Hook's enemy, the crocodile. [...]

The child soloists are for the most part of the age of their roles. They are at ease on stage and vocally, which is hardly surprising when you learn that they were prepared by Scott Alan Prouty. As for the singers, we would single out notably Gaële Le Roi's delicate and vibrant Tinkerbell (Fée Clochette), utterly graceful and with sophisticated flights into her very high range. The score is solidly stitched together, borrowing from Stravinsky's marches (L'Histoire du soldat) and from the Ravelian sonorities of L'Enfant et les sortilèges.
Some 450 students from the Académie de Paris took part in the performances. Burgan wrote his own libretto for this opera, which was a world premiere. You can see a few pictures here. I think that Washington National Opera's excellent Opera Camp for Kids should consider trying to bring this opera to Washington. Mini-Critic and I loved their performance of Brundibár last summer, and we are looking forward to their staging of Dream of the Pacific this summer. If you look at the picture above, those are children on stage and a house full of schoolchildren watching and listening. That Peter Pan is at least partially about helping children find themselves artistically is dramatized so beautifully in the recent film Finding Neverland, on the life of J. M. Barrie. If you have not seen it yet, run do not walk to Netflix.

Making a Litho

deail of Drifters in blueOver the years, in addition to painting, I’ve continued making prints: mono-prints, lithographs, and some etchings. Many artists make prints because it creates an edition of a single image, which can then be sold at a price much lower than that of a painting. Some make them solely to explore the process and possibilities of the medium, especially if you can afford the services of an experienced printer.

I lean towards the latter, and the process informs my painting, nudging me to open up -- shake it up; the sale of the edition enables me to print another day. A second benefit is that prints fit into flat files, which makes it easier for a gallery to store and then introduce their clients to your work or a museum to purchace for their collection. Mike at Modern Art Obsession recently posted 11 reasons why he bought Kiki Smith's prints, Tyler at Modern Art Notes discusses a museum's latest acquisition of prints. It’s all good.

Many artists have inspired me by their prints, Matisse and Picaso for sure, most recently Chuck Close, Howard Hodgkin, Kara Walker, Raymond Pettibon, and David Hockney.

There's nothing really that I've ever found in other lines that is like an etched line — its fidelity, the richness of it, the density — you just don't get that any other way.

Wayne Thiebaud, from View (Crown Point Press, August 1989)
Two weeks ago I met with lithographer Brian Garner at his newly renovated print shop, which houses his amazing vintage press. At the present time the press is manually operated but will soon be running in a fully automated mode. Instead of turning a big wheel to run the press bed under the roller, this press glides the roller on a track across the inked plate, picking up the inked image on the roller and then laying it down on the paper. It's as complicated and tricky as it sounds. Brian is a master printer, and this press is his pride and joy. It was a real treat to work with him.

finished editionsI made a decision as to which image I would print and how many colors to use, in this case two. Each color requires its own plate. The image is drawn on a clear sheet called transfer paper, which is then transferred to an aluminum plate treated with photo chemicals. The plates are processed, cleaned, aligned on the press, and then inked. After several adjustments the printing begins.

I decided to print three different colors, red, violet, and blue; an edition of four for each color. We ran the second plate, adjusting the color slightly for each of the three editions. After the run each print is signed, titled, and dated; then it is embossed with the printers signature marking.

I'm thrilled to print again after a few years off. I've reacquainted myself with the possibilities of the medium and look forward to doing this on a regular basis. Go to my flickr site to to see more photos of the process.

Mark Barry ( is an artist working in Baltimore.


Opera on DVD: Orpheus in the Underworld

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Jacques Offenbach, Orphée aux enfers [Orpheus in the Underworld], Alexandru Badea, Elizabeth Vidal, Reinaldo Macias, directed by Dirk Gryspiert, Théâtre de la Monnaie (released on July 16, 2002)
This silly, ingenious operetta was one of Jacques Offenbach's first big successes (Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, 1858), which did not prevent the composer, ever a man of the theater, from significantly revising the work (Théâtre de la Gaîté, 1874) later in life. This DVD is a re-release of a film, made for television in the 1990s, of a production of the operetta at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels. The Brussels production used an adaptation of the 1874 version of the work. In writing the clever libretto (that electronic version, probably scanned, is deplorably full of errors), Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy were conscious that the Orpheus story is the cornerstone of opera history, and Offenbach makes several references to Gluck's famous setting, Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), especially Orfeo's aria Che farò senza Euridice?.

I recently reviewed one of the many lesser-known versions of the story, Telemann's Orpheus, at Wolf Trap. That opera changes the myth significantly, while remaining in a serious vein, but Offenbach's operetta undermines the story from the beginning, showing Orphée and Eurydice fighting in the opening scene, while still in their wedding outfits. (Some versions of the myth have Orpheus renouncing women altogether after Eurydice dies, favoring instead adolescent boys. That is supposedly why the Bacchantes, angry that he had spurned female kind, tore him to pieces.) It would actually have been an interesting idea for Wolf Trap to have paired this operetta with Orpheus (instead of Le Comte Ory, for example, which is their second opera). A fun summer festival idea would be to select several Orpheus operas: perhaps Gluck's could go with this one, because Offenbach cites it so much.

Jacques Offenbach, composerOrphée is in love with another nymph but is outraged that Eurydice is already in love with a shepherd, Aristée. Orphée's instrument here is the violin, and he threatens to play his latest 75-minute concerto to torment his wife in their catfight duet ("Ah! c'est ainsi! / Oui, mon ami"). A scene later, when we learn that Aristée is actually Pluto, come to take Eurydice to the underworld, she writes the message on her husband's violin. When he learns of his wife's death, one of the crucial moments in the more famous operatic settings of this story, Orphée bursts into tears. We then learn, in a hilarious twist, that he is not sad but joyous, crying out "Merci, merci, Jupiter! Libre! ô bonheur ! ô joie extreme!" (Thank you, Jupiter! I'm free! What great joy!). Eurydice is sung by Elizabeth Vidal, who is still quite active in Europe as a coloratura. Her voice is a little flutey, razor-thin at points in the high range, although she has those very high notes. At points, perhaps because of breath support issues, some notes sagged out of tune. She was at her best by the time the Duo de la Mouche rolled around in the third act.

This Monnaie production is interesting, if a little odd. L'Opinion Publique is costumed as a cleaning woman, with a toilet brush as a sort of magic wand (in the libretto, the character is described only as "un jeune homme"). She mostly speaks, thankfully, since when she sings she's awful. Romanian tenor Alexandru Badea is a vain and impetuous Orphée, an "artiste" who spends much of his stage time running his hands through his long hair and worrying about his reputation with audiences. His French pronunciation is marginal, perhaps exaggerated to give a foreign air to the character, and he has some good high notes. He does actually play some of the violin parts on stage, not very well but passably. His singing on this DVD is not always on the mark, but he has nailed the character. I seem to recall that he sang here at Washington National Opera a few seasons ago.

When we arrive at the second act, we see that Mount Olympus is the large pillared dining hall of what looks like a smoky Grand Empire restaurant: the gods are falling asleep at their tables, attired in formal dining wear, with Cupid as the waiter in vest and bow tie (played by a soprano). The gods here are the decadent moneyed class of France, with Jupiter (Dale Duesing, now teaching at Lawrence Conservatory: he will be at Washington National Opera next season as the Narrator in Sophie's Choice, a role he created) as the biggest amoral philanderer of them all, concerned only with "keeping up appearances" in the face of increased scrutiny from the lower human world. Think of the moral oddities found in Proust, and you've got it: at one point, Jupiter makes out with Venus, a sexy number in a red dress who also happens to be his relative. Juno, a suspicious and imperious grande dame in pearls, chain-smokes her way through her scenes, long cigarette holder in her gloved hand. She is the sort who probably would boo the premiere of The Rite of Spring. In the entertaining Rondeau des Métamorphoses, the gods take Jupiter to task, recalling the forms he assumed during some of his many sexual escapades. If you love Greek and Roman mythology, this operetta spoof will have you in stitches.

Offenbach, Orphée aux enfers, Opéra national de Lyon
The production does not get any less strange, with Mercury (Franck Cassard) making his entrance by crashing through the skylight, suspended on flying wires. Understandably, Franck Cassard is a little breathless during his rondo saltarelle ("Eh hop! Eh hop! Place à Mercure!") Inexplicably, there is a large shaggy dog (played by a person in a costume) that does not belong to anyone but barks loudly in its scenes. (It turns out to be Cerberus in the second act.) When we switch to the locale of the third act (the underworld), the earth trembles, the lights darken, and the set crashes to pieces as a train descends almost vertically through the roof to crash to the floor. It's a funicular straight to hell. Portions of the score are cut, including the Ballet des Mouches and the most of the choruses (the Chœur Infernal and the famous Galop Infernal, now known primarily as the Can-Can, the best-known piece Offenbach wrote, of the fourth act remain).

This DVD was fun to watch, and I believe it is the only DVD version of the operetta available in the United States. (The purpose of this "Opera on DVD" series is to go through the DVDs available from Netflix.) Europeans should probably buy the more recent, and by reputation better, DVD from the Opéra national de Lyon, a 1997 production by Laurent Pelly, with Natalie Dessay, Laurent Naouri, Yann Beuron, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and conducted by Marc Minkowski. It has not been released in the U.S., and I have not seen it yet, but I imagine that it would be the one to buy. The cast list and creative team are both superior to the Monnaie version.

Philip Glass's 8th Symphony

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P. Glass, Symphony No. 8, D. R. Davies / Bruckner Orchestra Linz
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Sys. 2 & 3

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Sy. 2

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Sy. 3

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Sy. 5

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Sy. 6
In the most telling moment of a Q&A at the Freer Gallery after a recital a year or two back, Philip Glass consoled composition students, worried about not quite being able to “find their own voice,” witht the advice that they ought not worry – finding their own voice was much easier than losing it again. A charmingly self-referential point from the man whose music you can recognize within a couple bars, the effect of which, however, sets in only after trudging through the entire work.

The symphonies of the Baltimore-native Philip Glass were not his most typical work when they first came out because they stray significantly from the purely minimalist pieces like Music in 12 Parts or Einstein on the Beach. For that very reason, Symphonies 2 and 3 present the best introduction to Glass for those who are otherwise not too keen on the idea of hearing one and the same modulated triad for two hours straight. Either Marin Alsop’s budget-friendly recording on Naxos or the Dennis Russell Davies recordings on Nonesuch are perfect for that purpose. (Alsop/Bournemouth may have a slight edge in the orchestral playing and offer them on one disc, but the accompanying pieces on DRD’s discs – the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet with the second symphony, The Light and interludes from CIVIL warS with the third symphony – make them better introductions, still; well worth the extra cost.)

Since then, however, his music has become more schematic, using blocks of musical elements in succession or parallel to create his effects, rather than relying on one or two continuous effects to dominate an entire piece. The ‘listenability’ is increased significantly, the music sounds more interesting – but at the cost of all the hypnotizing power. It now comes closer to a sort of “Fisher-Price Bruckner” meets Shostakovean climaxes – but the latter, for lack of sustaining power, with some coital malfunction.

That is pretty much a summary of the somewhat enjoyable if less than novel Symphony No. 8 that was just issued on Glass’s own label, Orange Mountain Music. This is, unless I miscount (does his Low Symphony count?), the fifth of now eight Glass symphonies commercially available: nos. 2 and 3 as mentioned, No. 5 (about the creation of man – harking back to his more operatic style) on Nonesuch, No. 6 (based on Allen Ginserg’s “Plutonian Ode” – for orchestra and solo soprano; his most intriguing offering in years) on Orange Mountain Music, and now No. 8. They seventh symphony (“A Toltec Symphony”) will surely be issued in due time; the world premiere of that symphony (Ionarts review here) suggested it might be worth hearing that work again.

To those who know Glass’s music, his works not only sound familiar but exude the soothing effect of having heard them before. Like the first movement of Symphony No. 8 which, except for the three-tone flute steps (up – and down, up – and down, up – and down) sounds exactly like… well… some other Glass work I can’t quite put my finger on right now. It’s more like the second or third symphonies than what had come since (although the musical language of the “Toltec” already harks back to those). In Glass’s own words:
The first movement is the longest of the three, almost 20 minutes in length. It begins with a statement of eight different ‘themes’. This series is then developed in whole or in part, recombined with various harmonies and melodic elements and culminates in a series of ‘stretto’-like passages producing a highly contrapuntal effect.

The second movement, about 12 minutes long, is in the form of a passacaglia with a series of melodic variations. The harmonic basis of the passacaglia is 16 measures long, which allows for some extended, at times quite oblique, melodic embellishments.

The third movement, by comparison to the first two, is quite brief – a short 7 minutes. However, what it lacks in length it makes up in density. The theme with its accompanying harmony is heard twice and then joined by a counter theme, also heard twice. An extended cadence serves as a coda to the third movement and the symphony itself.
Lucid enough a technical description; I would only question the description of the third movement as “dense.” It would suggest at least a very intense, knotty, perhaps even frantic movement: in fact it is even mellower than the rest - although, perhaps, with more notes. The Bruckner Orchester Linz plays very well under its principal conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and the sound is very good, the dynamics not so wide as to make the disc unplayable on mid-fi systems.


Summer Opera 2006: "Barber of Seville" in St. Louis

Kate Lindsey, Patrick Carfizzi, et al., Barber of Seville, Opera Theater of St. Louis, 2006Last summer, I had the chance to hear Britten's Gloriana from Opera Theater of St. Louis. The way my summer schedule is working out, it doesn't look like I will be able to make it to St. Louis again this summer, but I am following their productions. This evening is the final performance of their Barber of Seville. I was very impressed by their Rosina, Kate Lindsey, when she sang the title role of La Cenerentola last summer here at Wolf Trap. I haven't found many reviews, but I did read one (The Barber of Seville, May 24) by Sarah Bryan Miller for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Then there's the staging. It's not that there's anything objectionable in Ken Cazan's production; much of it is amusing. It's just that it seldom seems to have a connection to the score or to the characters. Cazan's concept concentrates on motion - frenetic, kinetic, near-perpetual motion - for its own sake, as if reluctant to trust the score or the singing to carry the day, or even the hour. Cazan and his production team (sets by Cameron Anderson; costumes by Kathryn E. Grillo) have updated the opera to a range that seems to go from the 1890s to the 1920s. Again, there's nothing wrong with that per se; it's just that there's no reason for the shift except escape from the traditional.
She did admire almost all of the singers, including Patrick Carfizzi as Bartolo, who "was staged as a mad scientist with a foot fetish [and] sang with a notably beautiful baritone." Some people are traditionalists about opera staging: I am not one of them. There is a second review (A Cut Above, May 24) by Lew Prince for the Riverfront Times, which at least sees some of the advantages of a new idea for this very common opera:
This bawdy, chaotic and satirical take on composer Gioacchino Rossini's classic farce owes as much to the 1944 Woody Woodpecker and the 1950 Bugs Bunny animated versions as to the company's own 1985 and '96 productions. And that turns out to be a good thing. [...] In most productions of Barber, the men are lovable, sympathetic characters, as is Rosina, who's being trapped into marriage by a lecherous old coot, Dr. Bartolo. In OTSL director Ken Cazan's darkly ironic version, Figaro, Almaviva and Rosina — as well as Bartolo's co-conspirator, Basilio; his nurse/housekeeper, Berta; the notary who marries the young lovers; and even the musicians the Count hires to help him with his courting — are only interested in what's in it for themselves. They're as petty, scheming and self-serving as the cast of a Seinfeld episode. Cazan has subverted Rossini into brilliantly modern and hilarious chaos.

Cazan resets the story in the 1920s. Lighting director Mark McCullough and set designer Cameron Anderson take full advantage of the era shift. The opening backdrop looks like a normal, if somewhat stripped down Barber set. Hints that things are gonna get strange begin when costume designer Kathryn Grillo causes music stands to grow out of the hats of Almaviva's musicians — a very funny effect. Soon Dr. Bartolo, an evil scientist played with complexity by Patrick Carfizzi, makes an entrance straight out of a Marx Brothers movie. Anderson cranks it up in Scene Two with a spectacularly insane imagining of a mad scientist's lab. The Doc has been trying (scientifically of course) to figure out what makes women tick. The lab features a Penthouse Forum-inspired collection of corsets, high heels and plaster body parts, tied together by an outrageous mural based on Botticelli's Venus.
I saw a lovely but VERY traditional Barber last summer in Santa Fe. Reading the latter review, I am doubly sorry to miss this production in St. Louis.

Royal Variations

After a five-year absence, the Royal Ballet is in town again, in time for its 75th anniversary. On Tuesday night, the Royals presented a program of four ballets created in various times by the company’s own choreographers: La Valse and Enigma Variations by Frederick Ashton (The Royal Ballet’s founding choreographer), Gloria by Kenneth MacMillan (Ashton’s successor as the company’s Artistic Director), and Tanglewood by Alastair Marriott (the company’s dancer and aspiring choreographer).

Photo by John Ross /
(All photographs by John Ross /
The name of Frederick Ashton is integral to the history of the Royal Ballet. He sculpted British classical dance and created some of the most popular ballets that built the company’s name, so it wasn’t surprising to see two of his works on the program’s menu.

Created in 1958 for the La Scala Ballet, Ashton’s La Valse is a glamorous dance and perfect curtain-opener. “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds slowly scatter: one sees... an immense ball room filled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated,” wrote Maurice Ravel about La Valse. And this is how Ashton’s ballet begins in a ball room, decorated with gorgeous blue multiple-layered drapes and crystal chandeliers. Men in black tail coats, women in dazzling evening gowns and white gloves are indulging in a waltz. Ravel’s music sets an exuberant and at the same time ominous mood for the dance. The Royal Ballet had it all: stunning decorations, beautiful costumes, and a great band (the Washington National Opera Orchestra). Unfortunately, a lack of unison movements of the corps de ballet made the dance less effective and visually appealing. It was quite disappointing to see dancers not being able to demonstrate synchronized arm- and footwork when the music itself serves as a perfect metronome. The male corps looked stronger, while ballerinas reminded of debutantes on their first ball. As a result, the thrill and excitement of the dance were conveyed mainly by the orchestra.

Photo by John Ross / urgent and somber sounds of a solo violin opened the second ballet of the program, Tanglewood. Choreographed to the violin concerto of the American composer Ned Rorem (six movements conceived as songs without words) it’s dance driven by music, not plot. Slick gray and white costumes, striking abstract backdrops, and thoughtfully designed lighting created a romantic and dreamy atmosphere. Amid a sense of purposelessness, it was enjoyable to watch mainly because of a superb performance given by soloists: Martin Harvey, Leanne Benjamin, and Marianela Nunez.

Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, subtitled My Friends Pictured Within, gave inspiration and title to the second Ashton work of the evening. Fourteen variations created by the composer in 1899 represent a collection of affectionate musical portraits of his family, friends, and acquaintances. This ballet could be perceived as a photo album of them, with pictures becoming ‘alive’ during each variation. There are monologues, dialogues, and conversations all in the form of dance. It’s a beautifully choreographed and staged work. Christopher Saunders gave a solid performance of Edward Elgar while Zenaida Yanowsky impressed as his faithful wife. Roberta Marquez sparkled as little Dorabella dancing gracefully and joyfully. Sarah Lamb was perfect as Lady Mary Lygon – a mysterious, fairy-like character. Her spectacular love duet with Elgar was full of passion and tenderness. Elegant, nostalgic, humorous, and idyllic, “Enigma” was truly enjoyed and appreciated by the audience.

Photo by John Ross / 1980 MacMillan Gloria was inspired by Vera Brittain’s autobiography Testament of Youth and commemorates and laments the victims of World War I. The ballet is set to Francis Poulenc’s Gloria from his Latin Mass, which was masterfully performed that evening by the WNO orchestra and the Washington Chorus. Alas, the choreography was less profoundly moving. The powerful emotional effect one would expect from such a work was absent. Perhaps, it was too much of a task to relay human pain and suffering caused by a war in a short dance… What made this dance stand out from the entire program was the quality of its cast, especially soloists Alina Cojocaru and Thiago Soares.

Starting June 22nd, the Royal Ballet is presenting their classic revival of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, which I have previously written on here.

Summer Opera 2006: "Grendel"

Denyce Graves as the Dragon (top) and Eric Owens as Grendel (bottom), Grendel, Los Angeles Opera, photos by Robert MillardI am way behind in my press roundup work for Opera in the Summer 2006. Now that there are fewer concerts to review, there should be time to catch up, although more recordings keep coming across my desk and I am truly engrossed in my reading of Don Quixote and listening to the Jordi Savall recording. The biggest operatic buzz of the summer was probably for the world premiere of Elliot Goldenthal's Grendel, which was supposed to take place on May 27, in a production directed by Julie Taymor at Los Angeles Opera. As we learned from many newspaper reports, the date of the premiere had to be moved back. Here is a snippet from an article (Beastly Computer Glitch Delays 'Grendel' Opera, May 26) by Diane Haithman and Chris Pasles for the Los Angeles Times:

Saturday night's hotly anticipated first performance of composer Elliot Goldenthal's new opera, "Grendel" — directed by his life partner and frequent artistic collaborator, Julie Taymor of "The Lion King" fame — has been canceled because of computer-related troubles with a massive mechanical set piece central to the action, Los Angeles Opera said Thursday. The $2.8-million show, a co-production with New York's Lincoln Center and an undertaking that L.A. Opera general director Placido Domingo has called the company's most ambitious to date, will still go on. But the official premiere has been pushed back to June 8, at a cost to the company of more than $300,000. "Grendel" has been plagued by delays throughout its approximately six weeks of rehearsals at the Music Center, in part because of an accident. Last December, Goldenthal fell in his and Taymor's New York home, suffering a head injury that impaired his speech and caused him to lose more than a month of his composing schedule.

Yet as the opening approached, "Grendel" was undone not by the composer's last-minute musical revisions but by a 21st century wrinkle in operatic production: the demands of its sophisticated special effects. "Grendel" tells the story of a man-eating monster from the monster's point of view. But from a staging standpoint, said set designer George Tsypin, theater's new "monster" is the computer.
Now I have read lots of good things about the wild production of The Magic Flute that Taymor directed in New York, but her background is on Broadway, and the values of this production seem to skew all too far toward that art form. The rest of the review is fascinating on this question, as Taymor and other members of the creative team lament that rehearsing and preparing an opera is not like Broadway.

Yes, stage machinery and spectacle, sometimes far more outrageous and lavish than what is seen on Broadway these days, have been a historical part of opera from the beginning. However, the stage effects are supposed to be subservient to the music and the story unfolding. Although I don't wish anyone ill, I did experience a moment of Schadenfreude reading about these technical woes. I was not surprised subsequently to read the ultimately negative reviews of the opera itself, once it finally got off the ground. Here are a few brief selections, beginning with Madeleine Shaner, Spectacle dominates belated "Grendel" opera (Hollywood Reporter, June 15):
Goldenthal's music, in a distant second to the elegant design, registers somewhere under the ether; atonal and monotonous, with only brief snatches of excitement, it lacks any lift or emotional musicality.
David Mermelstein, Taymor's Flash Tops Goldenthal's Score in L.A. Opera 'Grendel' (Bloomberg News, June 9):
Less successful were some of the trademark theatrical devices associated with Taymor, Goldenthal's partner and frequent collaborator. Her puppets yielded mixed results. The large, grotesque creatures that embodied Grendel's family, with misshapen limbs and faces, proved endlessly fascinating. The smaller puppets representing warriors or depicting the near- mutilation of Queen Wealtheow recalled the scene in the movie "This Is Spinal Tap" when a mini-Stonehenge descends from the rafters. Taymor's use of a large dance corps created welcome spectacle, but Angelin Preljocaj's choreography -- with stock movements, simulated sex and stylized warring -- seemed shopworn. And what of the composer's decision to have Beowulf voiced by a chorus but embodied by a dancer? Desmond Richardson, stripped to bikini briefs and liberally tattooed, made a stunning impression in this part, but the reasons for Goldenthal's choice remain obscure.

Of course, this is Grendel's opera, and in Goldenthal's score, bass Eric Owens, looking like a tramp covered in plaster and dirt, has found the role of lifetime. Rarely is he out of the spotlight, and his part, rather than being fearsome, is sympathetic. Too sympathetic, in fact. For thanks to the libretto, credited to Taymor and the poet J.D. McClatchy, much of the duality that characterized Grendel in Gardner's novel has been lost. And good as Owens is as both a singer and an actor, his Grendel is a neutered monster too often played for laughs.
Mark Swed, 'Grendel' is a milestone, of sorts, for L.A. Opera (Los Angeles Times, June 10):
The company had in its 20-year history managed to mount only three premieres — Aulis Sallinen's dreary "Kullervo," Tobias Picker's inconsequential "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and Deborah Dratell's incompetent "Nicholas and Alexandra" — each more disappointing than the last. So with "Grendel," which is subtitled "Transcendence of the Great Big Bad," the cycle has been broken, if the great big bad not exactly transcended. The opera accomplishes little through words or music, but there is quite a bit to look at.
Allan Ulrich, Grendel, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (Financial Times, June 13):
The unenviable task of producing an opera in which the music approaches the expendable has fallen to the Los Angeles Opera. [...] Armed with Taymor and J.D. McClatchy’s libretto (in which humankind sings in Anglo-Saxon), Goldenthal conjures from his oversized orchestra sounds both febrile and alluring. Few of them develop into extended thematic structures. Fewer illuminate the narrative in the way mere words and movement cannot.
For one of the few really positive reviews, we turn to Joshua Kosman, L.A. Opera captures savagery of brilliant 'Grendel' (San Francisco Chronicle, June 10):
Goldenthal's compulsively resourceful score encompasses a rich variety of moods and strategies, from crisp bardic song to tender rhapsody to percussion-driven sonic assaults. Taymor's staging, peopled by the full-size puppets and phantasmagorical stage effects that have marked her work in "The Lion King" and as far back as "Juan Darién," is as visually striking as anything she's done.
Note, however, that Kosman's admiration is mostly focused on the staging. Fool in the Forest has put together a very nice set of links relating to the opera (hat tip to A. C. Douglas for pointing it out). See many more photographs of the production here. I will not be able to catch the planned performance at the Lincoln Center Festival next month, but perhaps Jens can.


DVD: Good Bye, Lenin!

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available at Amazon
Wolfgang Becker, 79 qm DDR [Good Bye, Lenin!], Daniel Brühl, Katrin Saß, Chulpan Khamatova, Maria Simon (released on August 10, 2004)
I had heard a lot about this movie, several people recommended it to me, and it did not disappoint. The story is an exercise in nostalgia, the object of which is something you might not expect, life in communist East Germany. Alex (Daniel Brühl) is the son of a music teacher in East Berlin, who was a dedicated member of the Communist Party, especially after her husband has left for a new life in the West. Unhappy with life under the communist regime, Alex takes part in the pro-democracy demonstrations, where his mother, whose mental and physical health have always been fragile, sees him being arrested. She collapses in the street and falls into a coma, during which occur the famous events of 1990, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the move toward German reunification. When she wakes up months later, the doctor advises Alex to help his mother avoid all shock which might cause a relapse.

Alex and his sister move their mother back to their apartment building, where Alex sets out to create an envelope of illusion around her, an elaborate ruse to make her believe that they are still living in East Germany. He gets some of the party old-timers and former students to come to her bedroom and sing communist anthems on her birthday. He hunts around garbage dumpsters and other places to find the brands of food that they used to eat (putting the new imported pickles in the old pickle jars, for example) and everyone who sees her has to wear their old East German clothes, not the Western clothes that flood the stores after the Wall comes down.

Fake East German news telecast, Good Bye, Lenin!In some of the most charming and funny sequences, Alex and his friend make fake news television broadcasts (shown at right), even recruiting a former East German cosmonaut to perform in them. They show them to Alex's mother on the television, at first to maintain the ruse that East Germany is still a communist country but eventually to bring her up to date on the country's actual existence outside the sheltered apartment.

Not having had the chance to travel to eastern Germany or the Soviet bloc countries before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I enjoyed being immersed in the world of East Berlin, in a fictional film and then in a fiction within a fictional film. Director Wolfgang Becker shows us the good and the bad, and that there were both in East Germany. Indeed, as the decadence of Western "culture" blasts through the ruins of the Berlin Wall, it quickly becomes easy to understand what Alex's mother actually liked about East Germany and why even young and rebellious Alex comes to be at least somewhat nostalgic for the past.

The performances are all well done, with exceptional work from Daniel Brühl as Alex and especially Katrin Saß, who is brilliant, rigid, yet fragile as the mother. The character -- intellectual, demanding, virtuous -- reminds me somewhat of Elaine Miller, the mother in Almost Famous, played so admirably by Frances McDormand ("Now go do your best. 'Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.' Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to be a person of substance. Get my son home safely, I'm glad we spoke"). The cinematography is not lavish, but the creative team went to some lengths to recreate the East Germany -- the clothes, the party celebrations, the repressive secret police -- of the late 1980s. The music by the Breton composer Yann Tiersen is very similar, in places identical, to his score of Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain. This movie is worth adding to your Neflix queue.

Boulez’ Latest Mahler

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G.Mahler, Symphony No. 2,
P.Boulez / WPh / Schäfer, DeYoung

Many Mahler recordings have crossed my desk over the last half year, but to be honest, not very many were all that extraordinary. A swift, good, but somewhat indistinct Mahler 5th with Sakari Oramo and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (Warner Classics), a 1st as part of the ongoing Zander-cycle (coupled with Christopher Maltman’s excellently sung Songs of a Wayfarer) – a very fine account with his usual insightful, entertaining lecture on a separate disc by all means, but no stunner (Telarc). Bruno Maderna conducting the 9th is an intriguing but hardly definitive account (BBC Legends). Claudio Abbado’s 4th (DG), although reviewed a while ago, got its due on Ionarts a few days ago – and with it I mentioned the Fritz Reiner – Lisa Della Casa 4th on Living Stereo. Barenboim’s 7th is still awaited eagerly; Ormandy’s 1st and 10th will be forthcoming, hopefully.

Last Tuesday, however, brought a Mahler recording that finally lives up to its high expectations: the éminence grise among conductors, Pierre Boulez is only one step (the 8th) away from finishing his Mahler cycle with Deutsche Grammophone after issuing a 2nd with the Vienna Philharmonic, Christine Schäfer (soprano) and Michelle DeYoung (mezzo) and the Wiener Singverein. Offering great sound and superb, precise, pristine playing (as well as good effects for the off-stage brass), it rivals the 2003 Kaplan recording with the same forces on sonic grounds. Boulez has the superior soloists (Christine Schäfer is absolutely wonderful – the Anne Sofie von Otter of sopranos; Michelle DeYoung is a great choice, too; only Claudio Abbado’s Anna Larsson might do more for me) and most conveniently manages to fit the second symphony on one disc, not two.

Of course he would, champions and detractors of Boulez may say, because Boulez is reliably that: analytical, collected, detailed, cool, clinical even, occasionally understated and, of course, fast! (He might as well be lumped together with Pollini and the Emerson String Quartet for how commonly these all-too-easy adjectives are attached to him.) But Boulez isn’t terribly fast at all (Kubelik, Klemperer are faster, only Tilson Thomas’s Urlicht is slower in my collection) and he is certainly not cool or understated. Sure, he is not a Schmalz-dripping romantic, even here, but this is an emotionally wrenching, grand, glorious presentation of the symphony with positively transcendent moments – especially in the last movement. It’s less wild than Kaplan I, but more believably emotional than the Rattle recording, more riveting than the solemn, beautiful Tilson Thomas, more gently moving even than my (hitherto) favorite, the superb Abbado (Lucerne). Kaplan II is just as well recorded - but you can tell Boulez to be the superior conductor: moments of glory sound glorious, not duty-bound to be glorious. His account is smoother, for one. Or listen to the way the great plane opens in the 5th movement (8'00"); this elated, completely unbound, unburdened and free music, transporting, mesmerizing. Bird twittering, utter euphoria, as jubilating as it gets, before it sinks into a calmer state only to submerge entirely, as if swallowed by the great swamp of recurring melancholy. Then listen to the 'footsteps' he sets down as melancholy turns to determination (10'15") to the drum crescendos. They are assertive, superbly separated, weighty. At other points, upon close listening, you will find little pauses, one just a fraction longer than the other, that give this music a warm, realistic air of hesitancy. Over and over, there are details that add to a great overall impression - especially as concerns movements two to six. This is a perfect marriage of Boulez's usual finely played, detailed rendering with what makes it a warmly welcomed recording: passion!

This recording is the top-recommendation (still), in the ionarts Mahler Survey.